MD Students Named Soros Fellows
Since its founding two decades ago, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans has supported more than fifty HMS MD students as fellows. To help celebrate this milestone, we introduce the HMS 2018 Soros Fellows: Jamaji Nwanaji-Enwerem, Suchita Nety, and Asmaa Rimawi.
The summer has been a busy one for Asmaa Rimawi, a rising third-year medical student at HMS. Classes, followed by clinics, followed by the beginning of her surgical rotation have filled her days.
Yet, Rimawi, MD 2020, still finds time to research the effects of discrimination on health and on the delivery of health care. Whether it’s her service on the dean’s task force on diversity and inclusion, her participation in the School’s efforts to recruit students from populations traditionally underrepresented in medicine, or her efforts to establish a clinic in the mosque serving the Islamic community where she grew up in Brooklyn, New York, Rimawi seeks to further improve how medicine serves all people.
“Serving as my mother’s translator in clinical situations at a young age made it clear to me that our medical system is not equipped to handle patients from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and languages,” recalls Rimawi. “As I grew older, I learned about the source of some of these gaps in care. I learned about how a patient’s wait time before securing a doctor’s appointment can depend on form of payment, how much the infant mortality rate changes depending on the color of a baby’s skin, and how access to basic necessities of health, from affordable healthy foods to crucial medications, is limited in most populations. To me, health care became the ultimate testament to equity, a reflection of the progress our society had yet to make.”
“I was motivated to go into medicine to explore these gaps in care, to understand the role doctors can play in advancing the conversation on discrimination in this country,” she adds, “and to learn how much my mother’s experience in the health care system was affected by the scarf on her head or the language she spoke.”
Rimawi’s time in clinic has reinforced the value that patient interaction holds for her.
“I think the ability to meet so many different people and almost instantly form a relationship with them is something unique to the profession of medicine,” says Rimawi. “As a physician, I have to build a therapeutic alliance with my patients, sometimes within minutes, if I hope to be a part of the decisions they make regarding their health. This, for me, is both a privilege and responsibility.”
Suchita Nety, MD-PhD 2025, is in the second year of her medical school training. As a student in the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program, she’s been spending the past few months determining the lab in which she will pursue her thesis work.
“I’m using CRISPR to study genes that are involved in cancer immunotherapy,” she says of work she’s doing at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “As an undergraduate I became interested in synthetic biology, which is genetically engineering cells so that they can perform different tasks. It’s work that takes inspiration from electronics, programming circuits to perform logical operations. We’re trying to translate that paradigm into cells so they can analyze information from their environment and perform actions based on that information.”
Nety is, in short, hoping to make cells behave as computers. And she hopes to use such programmable cells to target tumors.
During her undergraduate years at Caltech, Nety studied chemistry and thought a career in research was in her future. Then she shadowed clinicians at a hospital nearby.
“It was the most transformative experience I’ve had,” she says. “I felt privileged to watch the very intimate interactions that occurred between physicians and patients. I had no idea medicine could be like that.”
From that experience, Nety developed an interest in medical oncology—and a focus for the research she would pursue. She also realized how powerful patient visits can be.
“I want to be a physician-scientist,” Nety says, “and run a lab that develops synthetic biology technologies that can be applied to different diseases.” She does, however, want to keep in touch with patients who could benefit from those technologies. From early experiences in her program, she knows how profound it can be to talk with patients who may benefit from the work being done in a lab.
“Sometimes the divide between lab and patient can be vast,” Nety says. “I think every physician-scientist’s goal should be to bridge that divide.”
Since he was in middle school, Jamaji Nwanaji-Enwerem, PhD ’18, MD 2020, has known he wanted to be a physician. The urge to couple that with research, however, was planted in the spring of his senior year in high school, the result of a call from a professor at Morehouse College.
“I was going to attend Morehouse,” Nwanaji-Enwerem recalls, “and she told me that Morehouse had a one-month-long summer research program I could participate in if I was interested. Although I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what she meant by research, I was interested.”
That summer experience proved pivotal. Throughout his undergraduate years, Nwanaji-Enwerem immersed himself in scientific inquiry. As part of the Dr. John H. Hopps, Jr. Research Scholars Program, he worked with science professors during the fall and spring semesters at Morehouse. Then, each summer he went to a different school where he participated in other “truly enriching research experiences.”
Of all the sciences, he developed an early interest in genetics. At Harvard, that interest has gained definition in the Program in Biological Sciences and Public Health.
“I had a molecular wet science background,” he says. “The program gave that molecular science a home within the realm of public health.” In his research at HMS, Nwanaji-Enwerem has investigated how different environmental exposures affect health. His particular focus has been on understanding how exposure to airborne particulates affects biological aging via epigenetic processes.
“I like the way research has taught me to think,” he says. “Solutions to problems do not come from something I’ve memorized but from my struggling with questions and trying to figure out something new, something no one else may have considered before.”
This questioning approach is one Nwanaji-Enwerem believes will enhance his work as a physician. “You’re always trying to figure out, based on a constellation of symptoms, what disease a patient has,” he says. “I think about the possible diagnoses and about the diagnoses that are possible but less likely.”
“As an MD-PhD,” he says, “I know I’ll have a career that will give me the chance to care for individual patients while also allowing me to contribute discoveries that can further benefit medicine and population health.”
Images: John Soares